Friday, September 30, 2011

Herman Cain for President?

I’ll admit it: even though he’s running near the front in the latest polls, I’m having a hard time taking Herman Cain’s presidential candidacy seriously. It’s not that he’s too conservative for my tastes; so are Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, but I don’t have any trouble imagining them as president. And it’s not because I doubt he can win; Ron Paul's odds of being president are now much lower than Cain’s, but I take the Paul candidacy somewhat seriously because it's about pushing a libertarian agenda that wouldn’t otherwise get a national hearing. Moreover, I don’t have comparable trouble explaining to myself why I dismiss the other second-tier Republican candidates out of hand: Rick Santorum recently lost his Pennsylvania Senate seat by 18% points; Newt Gingrich’s just selling books and pumping up his speaking fees; Michele Bachmann’s running against Sarah Palin for Queen Bee of the Tea Party; Jon Huntsman’s running in an uncontested race for the media’s favorite Republican. As far as I know, Cain doesn’t have any comparably disqualifying attribute.

Until I read this Daniel Henninger column touting Cain’s presidential qualifications, I never gave much thought as to why it has never occurred to me that he's presidential material. Henninger reminds us that Cain is a spectacularly accomplished guy, whose record in the private sector ought to command more respect.  Henniger thinks it's especially  rich that a lot of people who can't begin to imagine a Cain presidency eagerly entrusted an undistinguished backbencher in the Illinois and United States Senate without a record of legislative accomplishment with the presidency the last time around:
“Put it this way: The GOP nominee is running against the incumbent president. Unlike the incumbent, Herman Cain has at least twice identified the causes of a large failing enterprise, designed goals, achieved them, and by all accounts inspired the people he was supposed to lead. Not least, Mr. Cain's life experience suggests that, unlike the incumbent, he will adjust his ideas to reality.”
I plead guilty as charged when it comes to not being sufficiently impressed by Cain’s accomplishments in the private sector. Yet if I’m still indisposed to regard him as presidential material, it can only be because he’s the only Republican candidate who has never been a successful professional politician, and would be the first president who hadn't held high elective office since Eisenhower. Worse, Cain has tried his hand at elective politics and failed at it pretty miserably, seeking and not getting the Republican nomination for a Georgia Senate seat. Thinking things over with Henniger’s help, I still find it a little bizarre that Cain’s extreme political innocence is the thing that most commends him to his supporters.

Can it really be that there’s no distinctive skill set associated with effectively discharging the duties of the highest elective office there is? If there is, there’s not much evidence that Cain has it. Yes, he’s successfully lead complex private organizations. But they were comprised of people he could fire without cause.  Being the president isn’t like that inasmuch as success depends on persuading all sorts of people with independent interests and power bases to do your bidding. I’ll admit that it’s becoming pretty clear that Obama wasn’t prepared for that part of job. But, if you ask me, it’s less because he hadn’t served in the military like John McCain, or succeeded in the private sector like Romney and Cain than because, owing to a succession of lucky political breaks, he’d never had to earn his spurs as a professional politician before he got to the White House.


Lone Wolf said...

Republicans are always talking about "private sector experience." But view few of their presidential candidates have ever actually run a business for an extended period of time. W. and his father had a little mostly undistinguished experience in that regard. But McCain, Dole, Reagan, Ford, Nixon had next to none. All of a sudden Cain and Romney are saying business success is indispensible.

Anonymous said...

I didn’t know anything about Cain’s background till I read the Henninger column. What an interesting person.

I wonder if you’re right that only a professional politician will do well in the White House. But we’ll see how quickly Cain falls by the wayside in the wake of Christie (maybe) or Romney (for sure). It just might be time for someone with Cain’s background in the White House.

Dave said...

Cain sounds like a really fascinating guy. I'd love to have dinner with him sometime.

But I think Obama has proven what we should already have known: political experience matters. True, as Henninger points out, Cain has at least managed a couple of very large organizations (a step up from Obama). But I doubt that experience bears sufficient similarity to the experience he'll face in office to count for much.

Ironically, Romney is the one making the case that private sector experience is a key positive differentiator. And yet his big advantage over Cain, in my mind, is his public sector experience.

I wish Cain would run for Governor. If he's good at it, he might make an excellent President. But I'm not willing to roll the dice again. Fool me once...